Jenifer Levini 236 cover

There are some great tiny house builders out there, but there are also some unscrupulous builders who are cutting corners and putting the tiny house dwellers that buy from them in potentially unsafe situations. Jenifer Levini goes in depth about what the codes and certifications mean, why they are important, and how you can determine whether a house was built to these standards.


In This Episode:

  • What your contract should cover
  • Why codes are important
  • Don’t skip these safety features
  • How to research your builder
  • Red flags to watch out for

Links and Resources:


Guest Bio:

Jenifer Levini

Jenifer Levini

Tiny Home Law is confusing because there are so many types of tiny homes and many variations on the laws governing them. Jenifer Levini, a housing and land-use lawyer, created a simplified hierarchy to help navigate and understand the relationships. Understanding the big picture will help you buy, get a bank loan, or insurance, and make practical decisions about your tiny home. She’ll also help you avoid buying an unsafe, illegal, unlivable tiny home.

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Jenifer Levini 0:00

What I'm talking about isn't people who are DIYers, and I want to encourage people who are DIYers to just be super creative and do what they want and they're just building it for themselves. And they still need to follow the codes.

Ethan Waldman 0:16

Welcome to the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast, the show where you learn how to plan, build and live the tiny lifestyle. I'm your host, Ethan Waldman, and this is episode 236 with Jenifer Levini. And this conversation was actually recorded as a session for my upcoming Tiny House Summit, which if you haven't heard of it, it's a free three day immersive, Tiny House learning event that's happening November 4 th - 6th. You can register at This conversation while it was recorded as a Summit presentation, I've decided that it's so important that I want as many people as possible to hear it, so that's why I'm also putting it out as a podcast interview. And so in this conversation, we're going to be talking about how to find a reputable and work with a reputable tiny house builder. Jenifer has an upcoming book called Tiny hHomebuyer's Guide. And she goes in depth on what the actual codes and certifications mean, and how you can apply them to looking at a new tiny house to determine whether that house was actually built to those standards. There are a lot of builders out there who are cutting corners and doing unscrupulous things. There are also great builders out there, but it is a buyer beware situation. So Jenifer is really going to walk us through it and she's so generous with her knowledge and time. And after listening this episode, you will have essentially a checklist of things to look for in a tiny house to make sure that it was built according to the standards. Alright, I hope you stick around and I will see you November 4th - 6th for the Tiny House Summit.

Right, I am here with Jenifer Levini. Jenifer Levini is a housing and land use lawyer and author of two books about tiny home laws. Actually three. Building, Occupying and Selling Tiny Homes Legally was the groundbreaking first book to help people wrap their arms around the complicated alphabet soup of laws that govern tiny homes in 2019. Since then, some places have relaxed their laws making tiny homes legal, others have strengthened their laws against tiny homes. The new book, Tiny Home Buyer's Guide goes in depth on how to buy a tiny home on wheels that is built legally and safely. Jenifer Levini, welcome back.

Jenifer Levini 2:52

Thank you, Ethan. Good to be here.

Ethan Waldman 2:55

Yeah, like we've been, we've been talking every week, but it's great. So, you know, the last time we spoke, you know, we both remarked that there had been some recent kind of high profile news stories about, you know, tiny house builders scamming people out of, out of money. And then you shared with me that you had heard of some situations where people actually were injured because of how tiny homes were built. And I think that that was at that point that you said, "You know, we really need to get the word out, you know about this and educate people on how to how to look out for what are the red flags, how to work with a builder, and how to to make sure that they're building your house, to the, like legal standards that are required."

Jenifer Levini 3:46

So true. I think that a lot of people in the tiny home industry spend a lot of time only talking about all the good stuff, sustainability, eco friendly, you know, less use of water and resources. And there's a lot of bad stuff that is going on in the industry. A lot of people are taking advantage of those who want to build, who want to live affordably. And someone who doesn't have a lot of money for living doesn't have a lot of money to defend themselves when someone rips them off. And so they're super vulnerable. And unfortunately, because I'm a lawyer, when things go, right, I never hear. You know, no one calls me and says, "Oh, lucky day I bought a tiny house." But whenever something goes wrong, I hear from the people because they say, "You know, I bought a tiny house and it caught on fire." Or what happens really, a really, really lot is that they say, "I gave someone money to build a tiny house. I gave them my life savings, and then they never built me anything. And that money is just gone. The tiny house builder used it to live on and didn't have enough money to buy the, the parts and, and the money is just gone." So I hear those, a lot of those stories.

Ethan Waldman 5:08

And those stories to me are so much easier to avoid than these than these like nitty gritty legal things where it's like, okay, each stair has to be a maximum of 12 inches, like that's something you have to go in and measure. But like, kind of in my mind and tell me if this is correct, like, you should never be giving a builder a huge chunk of money before they've built anything. Like, what what is a reasonable deposit to put on a house that is not yet built?

Jenifer Levini 5:39

In contractors law in California, the deposit, maximum deposit amount is 10%. So....

Ethan Waldman 5:47

Okay. There you go.

Jenifer Levini 5:48

There you go. I mean, you shouldn't, you should not give anyone more than 10%. And then there should be a very solid contract that talks about when you're going to, when you're going to give them money and how much money you're going to give them at each milestone. And a milestone should map out. Like what's going to happen? The trailer is going to be purchased and the framing is going to be done. And that they have to show you that the trailer was purchased and the framing is done before you make that like second payment. And that you know in advance how much that second payment is going to be and you know in advance what the date of that second payment is. And so if they're running late, you know, there's going to be some repercussions like, do you pay them less if they're running late? Or, you know, do they how far in advance do they have to tell you if there's a delay, like all of that stuff should be in your contract, there should definitely be delay language. So people need to have really solid contracts with their tiny home builders. And in my new book I wrote, I think there's 25 different things that need to be in the contract. And just so you know, I mean, I'm not trying to gang up on the builders. I wrote another book for the builders that has this exact same information so that the buyer, I'm trying to, you know, help the builders as well as the buyers run this business so that nobody gets hurt.

Ethan Waldman 7:18

Exactly, I think I think the I see this as like, as growing pains of the tiny house movement becoming the tiny house industry. And I know that people might not like to hear that because there's, there's a real spirit of DIY and kind of not doing things illegally, but almost, you know, flying under the radar. And maybe being a bit of a scofflaw or something I don't know.

Jenifer Levini 7:46

I want to say that what I'm talking about isn't people who are DIYers, and I want to encourage people who are DIYers to just be super creative and do what they want. And they're just building it for themselves. And they still need to follow the code, but they can be way more creative, someone who is building something for a customer and they're taking, you know, $75, $80, $100,000 from somebody, they need to be super safe, and they need to have the contract. It's really not the DIYers that I'm addressing here.

Ethan Waldman 8:20

Sure. Yeah. And that makes sense. Although, if you are doing a DIY build, you'd probably be well served to follow some codes. Follow the codes, because A, your house is going to be safer for you and then B, if you end up selling it you can you know, sleep better at night knowing that your house is safe.

Jenifer Levini 8:40


Ethan Waldman 8:41

Yeah. Well, let's, let's talk about some of those things. Because you know, you sent me very kindly kind of an advanced copy of of The Tiny Home Buyer's Guide and and you know, I said to you before rolling, I'll say it, I'll say it for the show. Like it feels like required reading to me for somebody who's, who's shopping around builders. And in particular, there's, you know, there's a section, I believe it's chapter four, that really goes through the standards, codes and regulations.

Jenifer Levini 9:14

I love chapter four, because it's sort of like that TV show What Not to Wear.

Ethan Waldman 9:20


Jenifer Levini 9:21

And it has, what not to buy. I went to some of the tiny home festivals and took pictures of tiny homes that are just illegal, and they're in this festival and they're trying to sell them to people. And I went through Facebook, the tiny home Marketplace, and took pictures and screenshots of these tiny homes that people are selling for like $80,000 and they'll have so many illegal and unsafe things in there. And the, and then they'll even describe it as requiring all cash and say that it's been inspected. And it's so misleading. There's no - Inspected doesn't mean anything, it has to be certified.

Ethan Waldman 10:02


Jenifer Levini 10:02

And the, I just think it's really, you know, there's a lot of words in that book. But when you get to the pictures, and you look at it, and it's all those words start to make sense.

Ethan Waldman 10:15


Jenifer Levini 10:15

So that was kind of a, you know, like a fun thing to write. And I feel like I kind of just want to write a whole book of just like, called, like, Tiny Home, What Not To Do and just like, have this like, big red cross over it. Like the thing has the dog poop, like no dog poop on my lawn, you know, like, you know, red lines over it. Like, don't put windows and curtains over a gas stove.

Ethan Waldman 10:41


Jenifer Levini 10:42

Things like that, that are just so dangerous. There's against all the code. And yet someone looks at a tiny house. And they see it looks so cute. It's like, oh, look, you can see out the window while you're cooking. But it's very, very unsafe.

Ethan Waldman 10:56


Jenifer Levini 10:56

So that chapters really fun.

Ethan Waldman 11:00

It is really fun. And I think that if you're, if you're willing to share, and we can go through them, I think what's really helpful about it, as you just said, is that it's easy for your, your, your eyes to glaze over, when you read like a long list of bullet points, like "lofts must have this", you know, "the stairs must not do that". Like, my eyes can glaze over. And I like this stuff. But like you kind of wrote this like list, it almost feels like like a checklist, a shopping list. And it's kind of like, it's just 11 things. But it's just like, here are the 11 things that you should check that are like, if any of these are off than the house doesn't meet code, essentially.

Jenifer Levini 11:43

The thing about those codes is that a lot of the stuff for the codes is inside of the walls, like how the electrical is built, how the plumbing is built, how the framing is done, you know how the roof is assembled. And when you buy a tiny house, you can't know if all of those things that are inside of the walls were built correctly. But there are things that you can see. You can see the stairs, you can see the loft, you can see curtains, you can see fire extinguishers, you can see smoke detectors. So if, if someone didn't do those really pretty obvious things on the outside, they didn't bother to follow the code. That's a pretty good sign. They didn't even know there were codes they didn't bother to follow on, on when they did the electrical and the plumbing it may not be safe to drive it down the road. That's the you know that, that checklist - I love the way you described it - is just to help people know is this. Is it likely that they follow the rules when they built the parts I couldn't see?

Ethan Waldman 12:48

Yeah, it's like I think it was Anthony Bourdain, the chef who said, you know, "You can't always go and look in the kitchen of the restaurant that you're eating at. But if the bathroom is disgusting, don't eat there."

Jenifer Levini 12:58

That's- I love Anthony Bourdain. And that's great quote.

Ethan Waldman 13:00

Yeah, yeah. Yeah. So I mean, number one on the list is probably one that most people do know about at this point, which is that there need to be two safe ways to get out if there's a fire, meaning that there's a front door. And then a second means of egress, like a large window or a second door.

Jenifer Levini 13:20

Yeah, I mean, it's not a difficult concept, but things catch on fire or doors break. And I've been in tiny homes where there's like walls of windows, but every window only about eight inches high. So there's like, once you're in there, there's no getting out. You know, like if something happens to that door you're in, you're dying in there. And so that is a really important, or I've also been in somewhere, there's lots of large windows, but they're picture windows, so they don't open.

Ethan Waldman 13:55


Jenifer Levini 13:55

Which is a common thing to do. So there has to be at least one window that is not blocked by furniture, it has to be a certain height off of the ground, it has to be the way that the window opens. It can't be one of those ones that just crank open a little bit. It has to open, the opening has to be large enough to get a an adult out of the window.

Ethan Waldman 14:18

Yeah, yeah.

Jenifer Levini 14:20

And there's the same rule is in the loft to that there has to be two ways out of the loft in the or any area that you're sleeping in.

Ethan Waldman 14:27

Right and that's that's number two.

Jenifer Levini 14:30

Right. Like if you're sleeping, let's say the the kitchen downstairs catches on fire and you're in the loft, you need to have some way to get out of there. And I've seen lofts that actually do have sliding windows, but the sliding windows are really low to the ground so they're behind the mattress.

Ethan Waldman 14:49


Jenifer Levini 14:50

And so the window opening does have to be a certain height off of the ground in addition to a certain size.

Ethan Waldman 14:56

Got it.

Jenifer Levini 14:57

In order to be legal.

Ethan Waldman 14:58

Got it.

Jenifer Levini 14:58

And I've seen some that are really good at have skylights that open and then the skylight has like a little patio, it becomes like a little patio. And so like, not only is it easy to get out of, but it gives you a sort of little way to jump out of it. That seems safer.

Ethan Waldman 15:14

Yeah. Yeah, meeting egress in the loft is challenging for sure. Because you know, you, in order to have a window, that's big enough, you have to look, oftentimes you have to lower that loft floor, and then you are encroaching on the head room under the loft. And so the the roof windows are very helpful for that. However, they are also, you know, rather expensive.

Jenifer Levini 15:37

And then plus you have to insulate that insulate the windows, there's insulation requirements, and it's probably more likely to leak if it's, you know, the rain is hitting it directly versus on the side. So you have to have more building skills.

Ethan Waldman 15:52

Do you think that that lofts, like tiny houses with lofts are going to kind of phase out or become less common because it's so difficult to meet the loft egress requirements?

Jenifer Levini 16:08

I don't know.

Ethan Waldman 16:09

Or do you think they should?

Jenifer Levini 16:11

I mean, if you look at the ANSI code that theANSI 119.5, like, which is for Park models, Park models have had lofts for ever.

Ethan Waldman 16:24


Jenifer Levini 16:25

So and they've, they've been able to build this that. So I don't think it should, it will phase out. I just, the way that tiny homes have been building them with the lofts only two or three feet, kind of crawl into them may be phasing out a little bit where like the lofts in Park Models are bigger, like you can almost not stand up, but like maybe at least stand up on your knees in them.

Ethan Waldman 16:53

Right. And also a Park Model doesn't have to be underneath 13.5 feet for towing purposes.

Jenifer Levini 17:01

Right. So I think that maybe it'll be there's going to be I don't know what the future is gonna hold? That's kind of like a builder question.

Ethan Waldman 17:09

Sure. Sure. And again, like on the topic of fire, I'm kind of moving down the list, which is, you know, number three is smoke alarms in every sleeping area. And number four is fire extinguishers.

Jenifer Levini 17:22

Yeah, I mean, it's, I think you can buy like three smoke alarms for $25 at the Home Depot or something.

Ethan Waldman 17:31


Jenifer Levini 17:32

So there's really...

Ethan Waldman 17:34

They're not expensive.

Jenifer Levini 17:35

They're not expensive. I mean, it can save your life. There are some regulations about whether smoke alarms, smoke detectors have to be wired in.

Ethan Waldman 17:45


Jenifer Levini 17:46

Or they can just be the battery operated kind. And I think that in different areas, there's different regulations about which type of smoke detector but I mean, I think that's just under the regular building codes that that's just a building code for any sleeping area in a regular house, a stick built house, too.

Ethan Waldman 18:05


Jenifer Levini 18:05

Yeah. So it's not, I mean, a stretch. Yeah.

Ethan Waldman 18:09

I'll add just like, I don't know, this might not be in the code. But personally in my tiny house, because I use propane for various things. I also have a carbon monoxide detector and a propane detector there actually, it's it's one unit that does both, but to me, that's that's pretty common sense.

Jenifer Levini 18:25

Yeah. Wow. That's great. So I didn't even know there was such a thing as a propane detector.

Ethan Waldman 18:30

Yeah, yeah. It's, I mean, it can detect propane, natural gas and carbon monoxide. I mean, it's made by the company, Kidde, you know, they make a ton of smoke detectors. And it you know, it plugs into the wall. It's got a battery backup. And I mean, I've never, I've never been woken up by it.

Jenifer Levini 18:49

Well, I mean, that might just make you feel so secure, knowing that, you know, if you're asleep, and there's some kind of leak or something catches on fire, that you're going to be woken up alive versus woken up dead.

Ethan Waldman 19:03

Yeah, exactly. I mean, I actually will say I once had a guest stay in the house who accidentally left the gas burner on but not lit. And when I opened the door, I mean, I smelled the propane right away. So it's not like I needed the alarm. But the alarm was alarming. So it does work.

Jenifer Levini 19:21

Well, so you're using your tiny home as an Airbnb now, is that right? So it's really important that you don't you know that you take all those extra safety stuff.

Ethan Waldman 19:33

Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, and I had that in there before it was an Airbnb, but...

Jenifer Levini 19:41

And then fire extinguishers too.

Ethan Waldman 19:43


Jenifer Levini 19:44

You know, you put them wherever things are likely to catch on fire in the kitchen. If you have a wood stove, by the wood stove.

Ethan Waldman 19:52


Jenifer Levini 19:52

They're they're not that expensive. You can buy those little ones that are kind of you know, tucked away somewhere.

Ethan Waldman 19:58


Jenifer Levini 19:59

And it's not that hard of a thing to do, but it's definitely, you know, it's so important for safety. And it's one of the code requirements or one of the standard requirements.

Ethan Waldman 20:10

Yeah. And I'll just add, you know, for anyone who's listening who's like, like, "Yeah, I'll make sure I'll put those things in my tiny house once I have it." No, what we're saying is like, if you're, if you're looking at a builder, and you're able to look at a tiny house that they've already built, this is a list for you to go through to kind of evaluate like, are they meeting these requirements? And if they're not, to potentially not work with them.

Jenifer Levini 20:37

Exactly. Like don't buy their tiny house. If they're not following that really easy external code, chances are they didn't follow and they didn't even know about all the standards that they're supposed to dp.

Ethan Waldman 20:49

The inside stuff?

Jenifer Levini 20:50


Ethan Waldman 20:52

Yeah. So the next one is, is I think another one that is like, easy to spot, but also like, not often done, which is handrails on the staircase.

Jenifer Levini 21:03

I cannot even tell you, every time I walk into a tiny home, and they have these staircases, and they've put so much effort into building shelves underneath the staircase to make that space functional.

Ethan Waldman 21:16


Jenifer Levini 21:16

And they left the staircase, each step of the staircase, looks like you're gonna fall off that. Because the steps are like really big steps. And then, and then there's nothing to grab onto. And all I think about is like, trying to come down those stairs, in the dark, or, you know, like in I'm like, when I wake up in the morning, I'm kind of discombobulated. So I don't wake up like perky and paying attention to everything around me. And I just imagined myself every single morning like taking that first step, the second step, and then you know, being in my, like, self falling, like hitting like, that's it, I only make two steps before I fall down. And there's no, you know, handrail to hold on to I mean, it's the rule, you have to have a handrail, it has to have, the rules very specific about how high the handrail has to be. It's not like they everyone can make up their own hand rails size and height, or they have to think about it. It's already in the standard how it has to be. Why wouldn't you put a handrail on there?

Ethan Waldman 22:29

Yeah. I don't know. What about what about for ladders? Because it's hard to put a handrail on a ladder, although I suppose you can but then it's not much of a ladder anymore.

Jenifer Levini 22:41

Ladders don't need handrails. Because when you think any coming up a ladder, like your hands are on the like rung above the one you're standing on. So you have something to hold on to.


But there is in the Appendix Q there is there are I should say there are very specific regulations about ladders about they have to be at a certain angle, they can't be hanging straight up and down, there has to be a certain angle, the way that they hit the loft and attach to the loft. So I don't remember what that angle is. But it's not like a direct 90 degrees, they're not hanging up and down. So ladders are regulated. And builders need to know that. Like they can't, you can't just attach a ladder anywhere, it has to be attached to the loft in a certain way. And the last opening around the ladder can only be the width of the ladder plus 12 inches. So there can't just be like a giant opening that you slide the ladder back and forth. The ladder has to have a very specific opening.

Ethan Waldman 23:50

Got it. Yeah. And okay, that's good to know. And that's, you know, again, like whether you're buying one or DIY one, you might as well look at these rules and build your ladder to code.

Jenifer Levini 24:01

And if you walk into a tiny home and someone's telling you that they built it up to code and then you see these things wrong, you see that there's like a large loft opening, you see that there's no handrail then, you know these guys are liars. And that's just it. Like these people who are selling these tiny homes, convince people like, "I'm here to save you. I'm here to save the world. I'm such a good person. I'm you know, I want to bring sustainability, I want to bring affordability." Or like that guy in Colorado like, "I'm doing this for God," you know?

Ethan Waldman 24:41


Jenifer Levini 24:42

And then they're like they're your best friend. "Oh, I won't even pull a credit report on you." Which people who are you know, have bad credit. That's like their dream. Once they hear that they want to believe everything. this person says. And they're liars. So what, you know, I'm just every day I see it, it comes over my desk and I need to just protect buyers and I need to help builders do better.

Ethan Waldman 25:11

Yeah. Yeah.

Jenifer Levini 25:13

So is there any other ones that you want to talk about? Or do you want?

Ethan Waldman 25:16

Yeah, well, I mean, if you're willing, I'm kind of just running through it. Because I think it's some things that people probably have never heard. And it's just very practical, which is that there's, there's two of them on the staircase, which is that maximum, like the height of each step, and only can be up to a foot, 12 inches. If, if you look and you you have this great like, it's like a self quiz section where you can look through the photos, and say, like, what's wrong, it's like a Where's Waldo or Spot Spot? What's wrong? Which is that, you know, these staircases that have huge steps, where you practically have to climb up the last step, especially into the loft. You know, those are, those are illegal, and also super narrow stair treads.

Jenifer Levini 26:05

Also, right, the terrace stair tread has to be, you know, big enough to put your foot on, which the minimum size is seven inches. And when I see those ones were like, every step is a different size. And then the last one is, you know, like 20 inches or something like that. I just think about the fact that these people are just building these things as they go along. Like they didn't plan it. They didn't think "Oh, every step needs to be, you know, eight inches." And so, um, build the staircase and then build those shelves underneath that. They built the cubbies and like the stairs were the afterthought.

Ethan Waldman 26:44


Jenifer Levini 26:45

And it's like, they got to the top and it's like, oops, like, "Oh, look how much room there is there. I guess that will just be like a 20 inch step." Instead of planning it, which, you know, you can only imagine what's inside the walls if they can't plan, you know, something like a staircase.

Ethan Waldman 27:03

Yeah, yeah. That's a really good point. So I mean, the last few we don't have to like, belabor, belabor them too much. I've, I've lost my place in the document. But it was mainly about... So many pages in this book!

Jenifer Levini 27:25

I know. You know, the other thing that I like about the book is like on the very last page, there's like the checklist of all like - I kind of go through the things to think about, like the know thyself, section before you buy a tiny home. And then at the very end, it's like, like, I'm trying to get to it right now to it's, you know, a checklist of all the things you need to know before you buy something from a tiny home. Oh, that's one of the thing that reminds me of is that some of these tiny home manufacturers that are shysters. People write really bad reviews for them on Yelp.

Ethan Waldman 28:08


Jenifer Levini 28:09

And that is, if you are talking to someone and you know, they're telling you, they believe in God, they're the greatest people, that they're not going to pull a credit report on you, that they're going to build this thing that's in your budget, even though it seems unlikely, read. Go and read their Yelp reviews, do a search for them in the Better Business Bureau online on Google and read what people write about them, ask for their references, ask them to give to give you information about some of the other people who've bought from them.

Ethan Waldman 28:45


Jenifer Levini 28:46

And get to know them, like do a whole background check.

Ethan Waldman 28:49


Jenifer Levini 28:50

And that is just something that people just they I mean, you do it without you do it before you go to a restaurant, you read their Yelp reviews, but something like your house is even more important. You know, really do your background research before you hire these guys, or let them build your house before you give them tens of thousands of dollars.

Ethan Waldman 29:15


Jenifer Levini 29:17

And the other thing I do talk a lot in the book about certification.

Ethan Waldman 29:21

Yeah, that's what I was about to ask you about is the certification because it's like, if somebody claims that their tiny house is certified, and they actually have that, like, NOAH, or Pacific West, or RVIA like stamp on what they offer, does that mean that the houses have to code or or did you still have to kind of it's like a trust but verify kind of thing?

Jenifer Levini 29:48

I mean, it should mean that I recently have, believe it or not, there's a builder at least one that I know of that has been lying to NOAH and putting, you know, buying NOAH stickers for one, showing NOAH videos of one place and putting the stickers on a different one.

Ethan Waldman 30:09

Oooh, so that's not good.

Jenifer Levini 30:12

So, yeah. It's like when you're just trying to get away with something when you're that type of person, you're going to try it. You're kind of an outlaw. And I mean, it's not like I have anything against outlaws. I mean, who wants to follow all the rules? Nobody. We're Americans and our country was built on like not following rules not doing what the English tell us to do. That's like the whole, That's like the whole history of our country. That's who we are as Americans. But certification should give you a sense that this is a safe tiny home. And if you have doubts about it, you should still do your, still do your background investigation on the builder. And you can also call the certification companies. And what happens is every certification sticker aligns with a VIN number on the trailer. And so you can call the certification companies or email them and say, "Hey, I'm buying the certified here's the trailer, here's the VIN number on the trailer. Is this, did you guys actually certify this one? And double check it?"

Ethan Waldman 31:25

Yeah. Yeah, that's, I think it all comes down to like, whether the builders are trust, you know, you sussing out how trustworthy this this company is. And I think that that, I hope that people don't hear this and feel discouraged. Because this is the case for for normal contractors and homebuilding as well. Like, you still have to do your due diligence and find a trustworthy builder. Just because they, you know, get a get a stamp from the town or they file the paperwork doesn't mean that they're necessarily going to do the job, right. So it's just like, it's kind of common sense. But it's just on a bigger scale, because this is a bigger purchase.

Jenifer Levini 32:10

Yeah, and especially when you're giving them a chunk of money, like $40,000 or $70,000, that you're not going to get back. Like if something goes wrong, it is really, really hard to get this money back from these guys. And you can't just sue them to get it back. Because a lawsuit costs, you know, $50 or $100,000 easily. And so I you know, if somebody stole $70,000, are you going to pay like $70,000 more for a lawsuit where you may or may not win? Probably not.

Ethan Waldman 32:48

Right. Right.

Jenifer Levini 32:49

So you really have to do your work in advance before giving anybody any money.

Ethan Waldman 32:54


Jenifer Levini 32:55

Thank you.

Ethan Waldman 32:57

You're welcome. So I mean, what else like, you know, if we're trying to give people like a primer on, you know, essentially like a buyer beware how to work with a tiny house builder, how to spot an unsafe tiny house, like what, what else do do people need to know?

Jenifer Levini 33:14

Well, they need to know that, that there are these standards and that they should. they should read through what they are and talk to the builder about them and see how the builder reacts to just talking about the standards. They need to know -

Ethan Waldman 33:30

When you say standards, when you say standards, do you mean like ANSI and NFPA, essentially?

Jenifer Levini 33:35


Ethan Waldman 33:36


Jenifer Levini 33:37

Exactly. Thank you.

Ethan Waldman 33:38

Sorry to interrupt. I just wanted to make sure to clarify that.

Jenifer Levini 33:41

Yeah. Right. They need to know that there needs to be a written contract that they have with the builder, and that the contract has to have a lot of different parts. And it needs to have a warranty so that if something goes wrong, that they know that the builder is going to stand behind it. And the warranty needs to describe like, you know how many times the builder is going to fix it? If it doesn't cover the parts and the labor? Does it? How long is the warranty? Is it 18 months? Is it five years? Is it 10 years? They need to know what they're buying when they buy it like what kind of guarantee I can't tell you the number of tiny home builders that build one tiny home and then move to a different state. And then you know, you're never going to find them again. It's just not happening. So you need to know like how, what kind of recourse you have if something goes wrong.

Ethan Waldman 34:39


Jenifer Levini 34:39

And they're not, I mean, the tiny home builders are not responsible for things like a microwave oven. They're responsible for installing it, but the microwave oven will have its own warranty and so you have to know that they're going to provide that warranty to you and so that you have some, if the microwave breaks that you can you know, you have a way to go talk to the manufacturer about it. I really believe that, that it's a good idea to, to ask for references. And, you know, if, if this person has never built a tiny home before, it's like, do you want to be their test rat that lives in this? Or do you want to go with a builder who's kind of more solid? And they'll give you a list of happy homeowners that you can call. Yeah, you want to get a written contract. You want to see that, know that they're working with a certification company.

Ethan Waldman 35:47

Mm hmm.

Jenifer Levini 35:48

Let's see, I'm just looking at the list, talk to previous customers ask about the warranties, or read their Yelp reviews. Maybe before you even choose any builder, I think that it's a good idea to walk through a bunch of tiny homes, and just kind of get the feel about like, what does a solid tiny home feel like? What is one that like, some of them are so cute, like, there are people out there who are great designers and decorators, who can build, like they're decorated, so cute, and I will walk in them. And I'll be like, "I love this tiny home. It's so cute." Because the decorations are amazing, and the colors and the way they put the throw rugs in. But then once I started looking around at the safety features, I realized it was not up to any kind of codes or standards. And not to get distracted by how cute it is. And whether or not it's safe and legal.

Ethan Waldman 36:47


Jenifer Levini 36:48

You know? There's also figuring out where you're going to put your tiny home. And that, you know, knowing whether you have any place to put it, what the local zoning codes are. And that's what this first, this first book, which is about, like I call it Part One for the Buyer's Guide, there's going to be a Part Two for the Buyer's Guide, which talks about zoning laws and all the different laws across the United States. And I I've been keeping track of them. But the main problem with writing a book about those zoning laws is like the day I publish it three laws change.

Ethan Waldman 37:28

It's out of date right away.

Jenifer Levini 37:29

So it's out of date immediately. But I guess I'm gonna be publishing this as an ebook. So that like I can try to update it, you know, more often.

Ethan Waldman 37:40


Jenifer Levini 37:41

But yeah, it is, those laws are changing all the time. But I mean, I'm gonna do my best.

Ethan Waldman 37:46


Jenifer Levini 37:46

To let people at least know at one point in time, what are the laws in as many jurisdictions is I know about.

Ethan Waldman 37:54

Well, there was one. And then there was one other one in there, you know, in terms of things to look out for, which I thought was interesting was like, companies looking for like cash only sales, because of how it's just unenforceable. Once they have your cash. It's kind of like, they've got your cash.

Jenifer Levini 38:13

Yeah, not only that, but the IRS. Like, you know, there's something wrong here because the IRS frowns on these cash interactions. And so if anybody's taking more than $10,000 in cash, they're supposed to file a Form, I think it's 8300 or 3800. I'm having a dyslexic moment. But they're supposed to file a form with the IRS where they ask you, "Where did you get all this cash from?" And you tell them where you got all that money from, and they file it with the IRS. So which means that they're paying, you know, they have to be paying taxes on all this, this large cash, I don't mean, when you go buy a car from a car dealer, you can do the same thing. You can walk in with a chunk of cash, you can pay them cash, they file the form with the IRS. Or you can do financing through a bank or credit union and do it. But there's a lot of paperwork that goes along with that payment. And it's not just this invisible transaction where it's like, the money's yours than the money's there. So if you're going to be giving someone a lot of money, make sure that you have a bill of sale that shows that you gave them that money. And that the right tax forms have been filled in to that just kind of another sign that they're doing things legally.

Ethan Waldman 39:45

Yeah, yeah. Well, Jenifer Levini, I mean, I feel like I could just keep keep asking you questions all afternoon but, you know, it feels like this is a good stopping point. And I just want to thank you again for for being so are so willing to share and such an advocate for the tiny house industry.

Jenifer Levini 40:04

You're welcome. Thank you, Ethan. It's always a pleasure talking to you.

Ethan Waldman 40:08

Thank you so much to Jenifer Levini for being a guest on the show. You can find the show notes including a full transcript and links to Jenifer's books at And also, don't forget to register for the 2022 Tiny House summit. You can find that at Jenifer actually gives two talks for the Summit. Her other one is An Introduction to the Tiny House Legal Landscape. You can watch Jenifer's two talks along with 28 other incredible sessions for free the weekend of November 4th-6th at You have to register in advance, so head over to Well, that's all for this week. I'm your host, Ethan Waldman, and I'll be back next week with another episode of the Tiny House Lifestyle Podcast.

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